The Dalai Lama lives in Dharamshala, a little town in Northern India just east of the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s a Tibetan village, really, filled with monks and nuns, disciples and hippies, and random Buddhist groupies who come to see what wisdom they can glean from His Holiness. Ava had signed us up for the three-day teaching, though later we learned that our schedule would only allow for one day.
The night before we left for Dharamshala, I ate a huge bowl of salad at this amazing Thai restaurant. We asked about the lettuce because everyone warns against washed vegetables and the risk of bacteria. The waiter told us that they have excellent filtration at the hotel restaurant and I figured since I’d been brushing my teeth with the water, I would be fine.
I totally got sick from the damn salad. So there we were, on our way to enlightenment, and I was hitting the bathroom with alarming regularity, with chills starting to set in. I popped the first round of anti-biotics the doctor gave me for this purpose. The flight was short and the car ride was mercifully brief, so I made it to our ironically-named hotel without any embarrassing accidents.
The framed guns in the hallway did not help my nausea. In fact, there were a disconcerting amount of guns in this town. I guess the price of being the world’s most famous peace-loving Buddhist is that you need protection. Ava was especially disturbed by the machine guns guarding the gates to the temple. It was weird.
Our hotel had cockroaches and the shower dribbled like a sad old man with no intention of getting anyone clean, but the room looked beautiful and had an amazing view. Here I am enjoying the view, trying not to barf.
My cramping, churning stomach in tow, we marched on to the temple in the center of town to register for the Dalai Lama teaching. Ava was really excited, and as you can see from this picture, she looked great. In fact, one man told Ava later on that she was the best dressed Dalai Lama disciple he’d ever seen at the temple! We loved this : )
We had to surrender our cameras before entering, so unfortunately I have no pictures beyond the gate, but I can tell you it really was very cool. A few flights of stairs up, the center of the compound was revealed, canopied by a permanent white tent that was adorned by many cute monkeys whose paws you could see in silhouette as they scurried across. The yellow lab on patrol for the monks (His Holiness has a dog!) was going bananas (pun intended) with all these monkeys. He chased them whenever he could and by the wag of his tail you could tell he really wanted to play. So cute!
Hundreds of people flowed into this general area that was flanked by classrooms, a kitchen, and little monk residences including that of the Dalai Lama (His Holiness sleeps in a bed!). I kept thinking of that scene in Annie Hall where Alvy Singer points out the Maharaji coming out of the bathroom at the ‘transplendent’ event.
Registration was brutal. It could have been my wretched belly, but it seemed like they talked about whether personal headphones were allowed for the entire two hours. They divided us into sixteen groups and we lined up behind our group leaders, finally and slowly filing upstairs again, this time into the inner sanctum of the temple.
The inner sanctum was one large room with big open archways on all sides. It had a throne at one end, and was adorned with hundreds of colorful hangings depicting Buddha, statues and shiny objects of all kinds. It was surrounded by a giant balcony about six times the size of the room, so that hundreds of people could witness His Holiness at once. The amazing thing was that every square inch of the ground was covered in thin mattresses and pillows in all different patterns and colors. You left your shoes at the door and padded around the pillows and cushions until you found your spot on the floor. It wasn’t until the next day’s teachings that we realized how lucky we were to be in group #14.
The next day I felt much better, the anti-biotics having obviously killed whatever unwanted germs were in that salad. We got to the temple at 6:30 am (thanks for that, your Holiness) and filed into the room as we did the day before. But this day there were hundreds MORE people coming to be there, a sort of a ‘rush’ crowd that hadn’t signed up months in advance the way we did. Our foresight (and payment I’m sure) allowed us to sit in the inner sanctum room with His Holiness, which didn’t seem like such a big deal the day before when he wasn’t there, but which seemed like a real BFD when the place was packed to the rafters. The entire balcony was full, as was the entire common area downstairs, with people watching on screens.
At 8am, His Holiness arrived and everyone stood up. This was no easy feat, as each of us had about four square feet to sit on – no chairs, people. That would be too much ‘attachment’ to personal objects, okay? We’re being enlightened here – there’s no pampering on the way to the truth. There are thin mattress-pillows though, thank god.
It was slightly creepy watching some of the people freak out as His Holiness walked in. He may be an incredibly humble man himself, but people still worship him like a god. A lot of his fans did this three-tiered bow and pray number that looked like a jumping jack performed by someone speaking in tongues. I was not a fan of that, especially since executing it took up far more than our allotted four square feet. But they were genuinely excited, and as he walked down the narrow lane between masses of people, I really did feel like I was in the presence of greatness.
There is a tradition in these teachings that they serve Tibetan tea and bread, so that you kind of have breakfast with the Dalai Lama before he begins. This was really cool! Monks come around serving milky soup-tea in big copper kettles followed by giant hockey-pucks of dense bread which tasted like Portuguese bread. Quite delicious. I was thrilled to see one of the enthusiastic praying dudes behind me dunking his bread in his tea because I wasn’t sure if that would be cool, but it tasted way better that way. We waited for His Holiness to take a first sip of tea, then we were allowed to drink and eat.
With this excitement out of the way, we then stayed on the hard floor for four solid hours listening to His Holiness. His message was wonderful. The basis of peace and nonviolence is compassion, the basis of morality is kindness, confidence and courage bring less anxiety and fear, suffering is based on ignorance and confusion – all amazing life lessons and really important stuff. Every once in a while he would look up from saying ten mind-blowing things in a row and say, “Yes? Do you agree?” Everyone would laugh and nod and he would do his trademark guttural giggle that sounds a lot like Ernie on Sesame Street.
He talked a lot about death and the fear of death and how we need to rid ourselves of earthly attachments in order to get rid of the fear – all of that made sense. But he lost me at one point where he said that the two most important events in one’s life are birth and death, therefore why bother with all the obstacles in between? In the text that we were reading along with him there was further reference to these obstacles, and one of the chief obstacles sited was friends.
I wanted to stay with His Holiness on this, but the argument that we shouldn’t bother with friends because we should be more focused on zenning out for our future death was lost on me. Also, I really needed a chair. Or another pillow. Or a few more square feet. I noticed that the little boy beside me who had been crawling around his mom since we got there was now fast asleep between the rows. I’m ashamed to admit I was envious of him.
After a lot more about attachments, HH then clarified that it was okay to indulge in life’s offerings (friends, pillows, money – that sort of thing) but not to chase them all the time. The important thing is to find the meaning beyond the physical attachments, otherwise basically you were in for a world of hurt, and you would be afraid of death forever. I was so relieved to hear this.
After the teachings, His Holiness left down the same pathway between people, incense smoke billowing ahead of him. Ava and I were feeling very enlightened, and very grateful to be getting the hell up off the floor. We got our camera and phone and headed up the main street of town. That’s where we met Sangye Lama.
This fine looking gentleman has his very own monastery in Southern India where there is apparently another Tibetan microcosm. We ‘chatted’ for a while (in quotes because it was pretty difficult with the language barrier), then he asked us if we had time for some tea. Sure! Who would pass up a chance to have tea with a Lama in Dharamshala?
He led us toward the Tibet Kitchen, a little coffee shop up a narrow flight of stairs. As we followed Sangye to a table, I noticed something peculiar about this coffee shop. It was full of monks, okay….but most of them were with foreigners. They had a racket going on here! Talk to a real live monk for the small price of a cup of coffee! Hilarious. It made me love the monks even more that they had figured out this excellent trade. And sure enough, when the bill came for Sangye’s Tibetan tea and mutton momos, let’s just say he was not reaching for it. Good man!
Here he is pictured with his mutton momos.
We exchanged numbers and e-mails, and Ava gave him a signed picture of the Dalai Lama with Buzz Aldrin, a picture she was supposed to give His Holiness from Buzz, had HH been slightly more accessible. Sangye said he would pass it along, and asked for Buzz’s e-mail address. Okay, the whole thing was kind of surreal. These were the monks sitting beside us, just hangin’ out.
Then we went shopping and checked out the town.
This cow was one of many just hanging out in the town. We noticed they congregated in breezy grassy knolls toward the afternoon. Good plan!
So let’s get this straight. Eating cows bad, eating yaks okay? As well as mutton, apparently.
Can you imagine working at this hairdressing place? What, ANOTHER head shave? Come on!
We also checked out the Norbulingka Institute where they work to preserve Tibetan art and culture. They had re-created the inner sanctum of the Dalai Lama’s temple more or less, so I’ll share that with your here. His Buddha wasn’t quite as enormous as this one.
These ‘wish-makers’ were all over the place – you walk by and spin them while you wish, making your dream come true.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, we stopped on the way out of town at a green tea field where people were picking leaves for tea. I couldn’t resist buying some from this guy.
And now off to Mumbai, Chennai & Bangalore!